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Big oil and renewables were once arch enemies. That’s suddenly changing

A coal-burning power plant can be seen behind a factory
Reuters/David Gray
High contrast.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If you think about it, fossil fuel companies moving into renewables makes a lot of sense.

They already have expertise in generating energy, and getting it from A to B efficiently and cost-effectively. Large oil profits have paid for investment in the development of expertise, in difficult things such as working offshore—exactly the problems wind and marine energy are now grappling with. Some of the best engineers and geologists have historically worked in the oil and gas sector.

But for decades, the two industries existed on different sides of an ideological divide. Oil, gas, and coal companies have insisted the world can’t work without the high-intensity energy fossil fuels provide, even if the consequences are carbon emissions higher than the world can sustain. Renewable energy, meanwhile, was seen as niche, idealistic and, by some, unviable on a large scale.

But things have changed.

Today, the news emerged that Total, the French oil giant, had moved to buy Saft, a battery company. Batteries aren’t themselves “renewable,” but they’re a technology that could make renewables viable, because the problem with wind, sun and other non-fossil energies is that they’re intermittent. Storage of the energy they produce, to be used at times when they don’t, has always been a challenge for the industry.

Total is far from the only fossil fuel company exploring renewables. Statoil, an oil company which had been one of the most enthusiastic Arctic oil explorers, is also investing in battery technology, (the wonderfully-named “Batwind”). It will be connected to a floating wind farm which the company is also building. Drax, the biggest coal-fired power station in Europe, is trying to become its biggest renewable energy producer by burning wood instead (though since that still creates pollution, its ”green” credentials aren’t so clear). People are moving too, using expertise learned in fossil fuels to work out tricky renewables problems, like getting power from the ocean.

International climate commitments, such as the Paris agreement which began being implemented last month, have added urgency. Pressure from investors on fossil fuel companies to mitigate environmental impacts is mounting. And there’s an economic incentive too: Oil prices are low. That makes investing in it much less attractive.

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